Actually no matter how much I try to describe our trip to Mt Pilatus, I will never be able to help you understand just how marvelous the experience of going there really is. It is a place that you have to go and experience it for yourself to fully understand what it is like.
Now if you don’t know anything about Mt Pilatus, the first thing you need to know is that in order to get to the top of the mountain, you can either walk one of the tracks which will take approximately four hours (if you are fit and healthy), or by the cogwheel railway. In fact the cog railway track up the mountain is the steepest in the world with 48 degrees at the steepest part! The way down is by the same railway or by gondola. The Goldola was being refurbished at the time of our visit so we did the trip up and down via the cog railway.
The highest point of the mountain is 2128 meters and the next highest point is 2119 meters. Between these two points is the landing point for the cog railway system, two restaurants and a hotel!
Now I am going to add some photos, they are great, but still not good enough to show the reality of the experience. I’ll just number the photos rather than describe each one 🙂
The views are spectacular! the zig zag pattern you can see in some of the photos are the paths that the trampers use to climb up and down. There is another walk along the peak of the mountain that is very dangerous to walk, but is used by many and it leads to a place that can be reached by road. But it is only walked by expert mountain climbers. We wanted to go up the path on the other side of the restaurant/cog railway station but it was closed because of the snow. We walked up to the highest point on the opposite peak and while we were taking photos it started to snow! It was such a special experience to be there and have it snow as well. Just amazing!
The final part of our journey, the wonderful ‘Tour of the Balkans’, and we arrive in Bucharest, the capital and largest city of Romania. We spend some time wandering around the places of interest within walking distance of the Hotel, followed by a trip by bus to the extremely large Government buildings! My job was to do the videoing on this day and Robin was the photographer. Judy took lots of photos as well. As the next morning was our last day in Romania, actually the last day in Europe, we had other things on our mind other than to load up all the days photos onto my computer. I was leaving early to start my new adventure in London, and the others were catching the plane in the afternoon to start their journey back to New Zealand! So today is the first day that I only have a very few photos.
I don’t think anyone can go to Bucharest and not visit the Palace of Parliament. Going into this place was like going through customs at the airport only even more official. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside but it was okay while we were outside on the Balcony.
You have no idea how huge this parliament building is! It was massive! The details…
Palace of Parliament is 270m by 240 m, 86 m high, 92 m underground, 1,100 rooms, 12 stories tall, with four additional underground levels currently available and in use. The floor area is 340,000 m2. The Architect was 28 year old Anca Petrescu (a woman) who also led a group of 700 other architects. It took 25,000 people, 3 shifts, 24 hours day to construct it. Building started in 1984, it cost €3-billion and was completed in 1997.
According to the World Records Academy, the Palace is the world’s largest civilian building with an administrative function, and it is the heaviest building! We were shown through a very small portion, but were still amazed by the number of enormous rooms inside. Most were available to be rented for Weddings or other occasions where Ballrooms were needed. Hugely extravagant and so very expensive to have built and no doubt to maintain!
So all the other photos of Bucharest are at home in New Zealand, but I guess you have seen and heard enough about this tour of the Balkans already. I know I have found it hard to stay enthusiastic to get this STORY completed, so can imagine it has been a bit of a trial for you, the reader, to see it through as well. Life has moved on and I have so many new events happening that I want to ‘tell’ you about… Hehe… aren’t you lucky 🙂 But I have loved the Balkans and will treasure the memories forever!
We finished the tour with a celebration dinner together. It didn’t feel like a celebration as we knew the next day we would be saying our goodbyes to our travel buddies. I am pleased that I can stay connected to the ones that have facebook accounts, and I can see what is going on in their lives even today (well a little portion anyway). They see a lot of me! I still have contact with friends from our last tour through facebook and it is really nice. You never know we may just meet again one day 🙂
Officially called Bran Castle, and definitely not Draculas Castle.
Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is a Transylvanian Count with a castle located high above a valley perched on a rock with a flowing river below in the Principality of Transylvania. This character is often confused with Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), sometimes known as Vlad Dracul, who was a Walachian Prince with a castle, now in ruins, located in the Principality of Wallachia. Because Bran Castle is the only castle in all of Transylvania that actually fits Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s Castle, it is known throughout the world as Dracula’s Castle. In fact Bram Stoker never visited Romania. He depicted the imaginary Dracula’s castle based upon a description of Bran Castle that was available to him in turn-of-the-century Britain.
Have a look at their website! They have a wonderful movie of the castle to show you where it is situated and how big it is. And the above information is from that website!
If you read the info from the first photo you will get the history of the castle. It was built in the 13th century!
It was surprising just how many people were actually visiting the Castle. I think there was probably about four tour groups, plus individuals visiting. We all meandered through the little passages inside the Castle, and had a look inside each room. Then it was out onto the balcony and walking around to the stairs to the inner courtyard and then out again. The pressure was on to get through as fast as possible! I was kind of disappointed. I guess I had imagined the Castle would be a lot more spooky and maybe with cobwebs and bats everywhere. I also thought I would see people dressed up as Dracula running around the place. It was actually quite normal! Nothing like the movies giving me a false impression huh! There were some markets in the area at the bottom of the castle and they did have Dracula paraphernalia for sale, amongst some other touristy stuff.
So for those of you who are planning a trip to Romania, especially to visit Draculas Castle, and have thoughts that it’s going to be a real Dracula experience, it won’t be! But it is a very interesting Castle and well worth a look through 🙂
And we arrive in Brasov to a Hotel full of young people. The foyer even though huge, was full of them. We immediately knew that there must have been some big event happening in this Romanian city 103 miles North of Bucharest. (Yes we have passed our final city of our tour, but heading back after two nights stay). After getting our Hotel room numbers and passing heaps of young adults in the corridors as we locate our room, I decided to ask at the front desk why so many people were staying at the Hotel. Not only one but two big events! The Romanian Music Awards for 2014 were being held in the old town square this very night (our first night) and up the road a little further was a huge tent set up for Octoberfest. The town was buzzing and so were all the young people that had come here to attend either or both of the festivals. We were left wondering just how much sleep we were going to get? The town square was just behind the hotel!
And we did hear the music but it was actually okay. Apparently the top bands of all of Romania were at our hotel, and we saw them wander through the foyer when their turn to sing was getting closer. The girls were dressed up like it was not only the music awards but the fashion awards as well. We even had fans sitting in the foyer trying to get as many signatures as they possibly could. Later on in the evening as we were going up to bed we met one band member wandering from his room to another room in his boxers. I did get a little worried that the entertainment in the rooms late at night might be louder than the actual singing, but by 1.30am all seemed very quiet and we had a great sleep.
The next morning it was an early start to discover Brasov with our local guide. The whole town was sleeping except for the street cleaners. It was quite eerie, but we got some good photos of the old town without all the usual tourists.
After our wander through the town, we all boarded the bus and went out to visit Bran Castle. I will do a separate post for the Castle as there are so many photos to share 🙂
The optional tour for the afternoon was to a place called Sighisoara. We had heard that the trip was worth it as the place was known as an enchanting medieval gem of a town. We looked up photos on the internet and although it did look a lovely place to see, we were bused out, and it was a three hour round trip. Our afternoon was spent by having a lovely leisurely lunch first…
And then we decided to walk to the Gondola and go to the top of the hill. We wanted to get to the Brasov sign!
It was worth the walk both up to the Gondola and then from the Gondola station around to the sign.
That evening we all went to visit a traditional Transylvanian restaurant for an evening of delicious Romanian delicacies with music, dancing and wine. Our second to last evening together as a tour group.
Altogether another lovely day filled with wonderful memories! I love holidays 🙂
The border is actually at the Danube River. One side is Bulgaria and the other Romania. At each border, either our Tour director gathers all our 40 passports and takes them to the border control, or a border control officer comes onto the bus and gathers passports each one of us. The officers that came onto the bus take their job very seriously! I was always worried that there was going to be some sort of problem and that they would actually find something to stop us crossing the border! I can’t remember which country it was that we went into, but they held onto the South Africans passports for ages! David (our tour director) wasn’t sure if they would be allowed in at all. That had happened on a previous tour! But luckily we eventually were all accepted into each new country.
Our final destination for the day was to get to Brasov, but part of our tour was to visit the town of Sinai and also the Peles Castle. This castle cost approx US$120 million to build finishing in 1883. Although major improvements were made until 1914. The Castle was built for Monarchy, and owned by the crown. Now it is a heritage site and opened to the public, with an entry fee! To be able to take photos inside there is another cost and a label must be worn to prove that you have paid the fee. We all decided that I would buy a ticket and use my camera as it always takes fabulous indoor photos without need of a flash, and as you weren’t allowed to use the flash, it was perfect. Now I always take photos on fully automatic and people are always commenting on my great photos. So now you know my secret! It’s not because of my skill at all that I take good photos. It’s the fabulous camera that I have. A Canon EOS M. Have a look at the specs! It really is an excellent camera to use. Just copy and paste the link below in your internet browser 🙂
So after having a good look at the outside of the Castle and admiring all the Frescos in the courtyard, David finally got our tickets to enter the Castle. I was so happy to have a pass to take as many photos as I wanted!
Now I have put up a lot of photos, but believe me I could have put up heaps more! Sadly I have to confess that for the first time I touched something on my camera and changed the settings from automatic to manual. Now if I had time I would have fiddled around and managed to change the setting back but the tour guide kept moving on from room to room, and I was already at the end of the group, and panicking about keeping up, and trying to see everything and also trying to get the best photos I could get with minimal light and no idea how to focus the camera in these conditions! It was awful! I was angry with myself and sad that I wasn’t getting the best photos that I could get. And I nearly got lost! The group had moved out from the last room and I had no idea which way they went! The Castle was so big and had rooms going off in all directions. Luckily there were a couple of others from our tour still with me and taking photos, and we managed to get advise from another group leader! Phew!
So we wandered on back to the bus with me still being mad at myself for messing up the camera. One day I AM going to learn all about how to really use a camera on manual settings! One day I will!
Peles Castle was certainly a wonder to see. It was great to get the extra photos inside and well worth the seven Euros fifty for that pleasure! But we still had more to do and that was to travel on to Brasov. So once again we load onto the bus and think about what we will see next. Our minds are already full of wonderful memories of this Balkans Tour. Just as well we are nearing the end as I am thinking that I am getting quite overwhelmed with all the information I have heard and the wonderful sights that I have seen.
We do live in a wonderful world and I am feeling very thankful. What an amazing experience 🙂
The windy roads continue as we travel to the former medieval capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo. A trip of approximately three hours from Sofia. We left Sofia after breakfast and arrived at Veliko Tarnovo with plenty of time to do some sightseeing. Our local guide Yama directed our Tour bus driver through the town and pointed out many historical monuments, and then directed him seven kilometers out of town to a place called Arbanasi.
Arbanasi has a population of around 300 people. It was very old, dating back to the 17th -18th century, and is known for it’s rich history and some very old buildings. We wandered the narrow streets stopping firstly at 17th century merchants house.
We then wandered on to the Church of the Holy Nativity, dated 1632. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the church, but it was highly decorated on every wall with biblical scenes. It is also well known for it’s enchanting acoustics.
And even though Arbanasi was only a small village type of town, there were about four restaurants on the main street and we all dispersed to have lunch before heading back to Veliko Tarnovo.
Veliko Tarnovo was known to be one of the strongest Bulgarian fortification between the 12th and 14th centuries. The whole place is surrounded by walls as you will see in the photos.
The most popular landmark is the historic hill Tsarevets which Robin and Len went and visited and took several photos for us.
Judy, Teresa and I went and had a look at the shops. It was very hot and we were actually feeling a little weary from the bus ride again. It was nice to just have some free time and wander around. We ended up sitting at a local cafe and just enjoyed doing nothing in particular.
Our Hotel was really quite nice and after a very hot day I went down the three floors to the swimming pool and had a half hour swim before tea.
We had a lovely meal at the Hotel with the rest of our tour group and ended up having a sing along and dance. A super ending to another lovely day of ‘Touring the Balkans’ 🙂
So we are now in Bulgaria, staying at the capital city of Sofia. The first morning we did a walking tour of Sophia and in the afternoon we chose to take the extra tour to The Rila Monastery. None of us had even heard of The Monastery or even seen any photos of it, so we were in for a surprise. The Monastery was only a nearly two hour drive, but the day before we had traveled from Ohrid to Sofia, and it ended up an all day trip. The roads were kind of windy (curvy) and some of us felt like we had a little motion sickness going on in our heads. Not the kind that makes you feel sick but the kind that gives you a woozy head, even on land. Now the trip to The Monastery, as I said, is nearly two hours, but we have to come back to Sofia and that totals another big day of traveling… on a bus… and including windy roads! We were thinking that this Rila Monastery better be worth the trip!
The drive to the Monastery was broken up with a stop at Kocherinovo to see the nesting Storks.
We also stopped for lunch. A lovely meal of fried trout, tomatoes, shredded cabbage and potatoes… yum! And the view was so relaxing.
So that good break in the traveling was such an great idea! Next stop was the Monastery. Reader prepare to be amazed when you look at the photos! It’s a wonderful place to see!
Now for all the details about the monastery. I’m going to let Wikipedia tell you all about it….
The Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria and occupies an area of 8,800 m². It is situated in the southwestern Rila Mountains, 117 km south of the capital Sofia in the deep valley of the Rilska River at an elevation of 1,147 m above sea level. The rectangular monastery is named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila (876 – 946 AD). It is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments and is a key tourist attraction for both Bulgaria and Southern Europe. In 2008 alone, it attracted 900,000 visitors. It was destroyed by fire in 1833 and then reconstructed between 1834 and 1862 with the help of wealthy Bulgarians from the whole country.
The main church of the monastery has five domes, three altars and two side chapels, while one of the most precious items inside is the gold-plated wall of icons and religious paintings. The church is also home to many valuable icons, dating from the 14th to the 19th century. Porches in the courtyard have Mamluk influence with the striped painting and the domes, which became more popular in the Ottoman Empire after the conquest of Egypt. It is truly a remarkable sight to see.
The four-storey (not counting the basement) residential part of the complex consists of 300 chambers, four chapels, an abbot’s room, a kitchen (noted for its uncommonly large vessels), a library housing 250 manuscripts and 9,000 old printed matters, and a donor’s room. The exterior of the complex, with its high walls of stone and little windows, resembles a fortress more than a monastery.
Yes we traveled nearly an extra four hours, two hours there and back. Was it worth it? definitely. I am very happy to say that we have been there. That I have seen that wonderful place with my own eyes. Ahhhhhh! What a pleasure it was! Looking at the photos do you agree? Let me know by adding your comments 🙂
After our three and a half hour drive we arrive at Sofia, and we cross another border as well. We are now in Bulgaria!
Our Hotel is fabulous and right in the middle of the city!
One of our other tour party (Claudia) wrote about our Hotel…
Our hotel Sofia Grand Hotel, sits on one of the most beautiful squares. The hotel is luxurious, glowingly paneled in fine woods in hallways, and dripping with green marble bathroom surfaces, huge and comfortable.
The day ahead was full, so it was an early start. We began with a two hour walking tour, starting and ending from the hotel. Naturally we took plenty of photos to share.
The afternoon was filled with an add on tour to the Rila Monestry but I will do a separate post for that visit. I took soooooo many photos!
For our dinner we chose another add on tour and it was a great experience!
SOFO2 BULGARIAN FOLKLORE SHOW WITH DINNER
Take your seats for a fun-filled evening of wine, traditional
entertainment and hearty Bulgarian cuisine. Expect
delicious dishes prepared according to age-old recipes, an
authentic atmosphere and colourful folklore show featuring
traditional dancers, musicians and songs.
The restaurant was up Vitocha hill so we had a little trip back to our hotel on the bus after dinner. Everyone was in good spirits so we continued the great evening by singing ‘Abba” songs all the way back. Such a fun time 🙂
We drove into Skopje, passing the Skopje Fortress which was originally built by the Byzantines in the 6th century. After the 1963 Skopje earthquake, that destroyed 80% of the city, the fortress’s circular, rectangular and square towers were conserved and restored. It is today one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. We just had a quick look as we drove past. The option was to use your lunch time in racing over to the fortress and ‘Old Town’ to have a quick look, or stay in the town centre and casually eat at one of the many restaurants. We chose the latter.
In 2010, the Macedonian government launched the “Skopje 2014” project which aims to give a more monumental appearance to the capital. It made plans to erect a large number of statues, fountains, bridges, and museums at a cost of about €500 million. As we walked towards the town centre we saw many of these statues. Honestly, I thought the town had overdone it a bit. There were statues everywhere and often right next to each other!
There are several landmarks of Mother Teresa in Skopje, the city of her birth and childhood, including a marker of her birthplace, a statue, and a memorial house. As of January 2013, Macedonian authorities laid the ground work for a new 30-metre-high statue dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning nun.
And after our walk through the many statues we have lunch.
So Skopje was really only our lunch spot. There were many more sights we could have seen. There was on Old Town to discover and also a very old Aqueduct and of course the Fortress, but time was against us, as we had Sofia yet to explore.
Before we head on to Lake Ohrid, we stay in Albania for the night at a place called Tirana. Tirana really was just a stopover and not a place where we did a lot of sight seeing. We arrived late and then we were up early to travel on. We all went for a short self guided walking tour, and decided that Tirana really didn’t have a lot to offer tourists, apart from a place to lay our heads.
And then it was back on the bus and time to move on to Macedonia. We went through a tunnel that saved us 45 minutes of driving via Elbasan. Its infrastructure was constructed by Chinese.
We also stopped to look at some of the bunkers that had been built along the roadside. I can’t imagine how they would keep people safe and how long people were expected to stay in them?
During the nearly forty-year leadership of Communist ruler Enver Hoxha of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, over 700,000 bunkers were built in the country – one for every four inhabitants. The bunkers are still a ubiquitous sight in Albania, with an average of 24 bunkers for every square kilometre of the country.
Hoxha’s programme of “bunkerisation” resulted in the construction of bunkers in every corner of Albania, from mountain passes to city streets. They had little military value and were never used for their intended purpose during the years of Communist rule (1945–1990). The cost of constructing them was a drain on Albania’s resources, diverting them away from more pressing needs, such as dealing with the country’s housing shortage and poor roads.
The bunkers were abandoned following the collapse of communism in 1990. Most are now derelict, though some have been reused for a variety of purposes including residential accommodation, cafés, storehouses and shelters for animals or the homeless. A few briefly saw use in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
Another ridiculous decision and a total waste of money!
Our nights stay was at Ohrid at one of our not so flash hotels, but it was still a very pleasant place to stay.
After a walking tour with a local guide, we found our own way back to the Hotel and it was a lovely walk along the lakeside. Unfortunately we didn’t take any photos of the lake??? I really don’t know how that happened. It was quite lovely! Oh… I found one! Don’t laugh!
And another three. I told you it was quite nice… and I remembered why we didn’t take too many photos as when we arrived it was raining!
That evening we had a special tea with drink provided to thank those people among our tour that have travelled with ‘Insight Vacations’ many times. It was a pleasant evening with lots of laughter and shared stories. We were starting to get to know each other much better and were getting more relaxed. It was nice 🙂